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Perspective: Anti-China hypocrisy in Congress?

Declan McCullagh / CNet | Feb 2 2006

It's usually wise to be skeptical when our elected leaders in the U.S. Congress start to proclaim their devotion to democratic ideals like free speech.

This time is no exception. The Congressional Human Rights Caucus is holding a briefing on Wednesday to look at how U.S. Internet companies are complying with Chinese government orders, and a House International Relations subcommittee has a virtually identical session planned for Feb. 15.

"It is astounding that Google, whose corporate philosophy is 'don't be evil,' would enable evil by cooperating with China's censorship policies just to make a buck," says Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who heads the subcommittee. "Many Chinese have suffered imprisonment and torture in the service of truth--and now Google is collaborating with their persecutors."

If Smith and compatriot Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, were sincere in this paean to free speech, perhaps we could applaud them for a steadfast commitment to principle.

But they're not. Smith and Lantos voted for a flag-burning amendment that flies in the face of the right to protest, a law to criminalize computer-generated images of nude minors, and the restrictions on election-related speech in the McCain-Feingold law that are now causing trouble for bloggers. Both voted for the Patriot Act, even though a federal judge ruled a key portion violates the First Amendment's free speech rights. Smith also embraced a proposal to restrict the sale of violent material such as video games to anyone under the age of 18.

If we try to reconcile these votes with recent statements, we're left with the unsettling conclusion that this pair of solons may care a great deal about free speech--but only for the Chinese, not Americans.

Or we can consider a second explanation: that they'd simply like to whip up some anti-China sentiment, and Internet censorship is a convenient excuse to do it.

"It's really just hatred of China," says Lew Rockwell, president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Ala. "People like Christopher Smith, the neo-conservatives, the Christian right that Christopher Smith is affiliated with, were planning a cold war against China before 9/11. They've just postponed it."

Rockwell, whose group supports free markets and peace, adds that Congress seems intent on "making trouble, expanding the empire, and actually hurting the cause of freedom."

There already is an undercurrent of anti-China rhetoric flowing through Congress, as I wrote about in a column two years ago.

And Lantos has a history of pulling these kinds of stunts. As recounted by the Village Voice and Wikipedia, Lantos' Congressional Human Rights Caucus called as a witness a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, identified only as "Nayirah," who said she saw Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait seize incubators and leave "babies on the cold floor to die." "Nayirah" was lying--she was the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the United States and her appearance was orchestrated by a public relations firm--but her testimony was cited by President George H. W. Bush and used to propel the nation to war against Iraq in 1991.

Nobody is saying that the leaders of China's ruling Communist Party should be immune from rebukes, of course. Their thuggish attempts to censor what their own citizens can read deserve not just criticism but contempt.

But it would be a welcome change if the politicians who have chosen to anoint themselves as defenders of civil liberties in China were half as interested in protecting those of Americans at home.

Declan McCullagh is CNET's chief political correspondent. He spent more than a decade in Washington, D.C., chronicling the busy intersection between technology and politics. Previously, he was the Washington bureau chief for Wired News, and a reporter for, Time magazine and HotWired. McCullagh has taught journalism at American University and been an adjunct professor at Case Western University.

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